PITTSBURGH -- After the New York Rangers’ 3-2 overtime victory to take Game 1 in the team’s second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, coach Alain Vigneault was asked about the impact of the team’s most productive line for much of this season -- the trio of Benoit Pouliot, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello.
Vigneault said they have been the team’s most consistent trio since Christmas, that they have forged a palpable chemistry, that they were strong on the puck, aggressive on the forecheck ...
“And they scored two [goals] in overtime,” Vigneault quipped as a nod to a wacky bang-bang sequence that ended the game.
Indeed, it was Brassard, whose shot that clanged off the crossbar and in (even though play continued), who was rightfully credited with the game winner. But even after signaling to officials that the puck went in, there was no whistle. With a scramble in front of Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury’s crease, Brassard connected with Pouliot for a goal that ended the game and rendered a restless crowd at CONSOL Energy Center silent.
Pouliot didn’t even find out that Brassard was credited with the deciding goal until his postgame television interview, but he wasn’t perturbed in the least. Pouliot had already notched his third goal of the playoffs earlier in the game; he didn’t care who ended up on the score sheet, just as long as the Rangers left the building with a win.
“It’s huge, especially in Pittsburgh. They’re such a great team,” Pouliot said. “You come in Pitt, the crowd’s behind them. You just played 48 hours ago. You never know what’s going to happen, but we scored two goals right away, kind of put them on their heels, then did the job in overtime.”
It was Pouliot’s marker that jump-started a terrific, textbook opening frame. He scored on a rather harmless wrist shot, but it was enough to make Fleury appear unhinged and the Rangers took notice. Later in the period, veteran center Brad Richards capitalized on a defensive miscue, putting one past Fleury while all alone in front.
But the game changed dramatically in the second period, as the Rangers failed to keep pushing and instead allowed the Penguins to climb right back into the match, building some equity with their disgruntled fan base and knotting the score 2-2 heading into the third period.
It might have been a necessary reminder to the Rangers that no lead is safe during these Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s a lesson of which the Penguins are already keenly aware after blowing a pair of two-goal leads and dropping games as a result in their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“It’d be nice not to take a period off, but we’re fortunate that tonight we didn’t get hurt by it,” said defenseman Dan Girardi. “We ended up getting a win, but if we can take our first period and play 60 minutes like that I think we’ll be all right.”
The Rangers have done nothing more than win one game, but they have to take confidence in a few different things from Friday’s game. One, they did not play their best hockey and yet they still beat a Penguins team that boasts two of the league’s resident superstars in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Two, they were able to contain both players, holding both without a goal and Crosby off the score sheet entirely (Malkin finished with an assist on James Neal’s game-tying goal in the second period). Crosby finished the game with a minus-3 rating as well Lastly, their regular-season road prowess -- they set a franchise record with 25 wins away from home this year -- was no fluke. They can win games in hostile territory.
“We’re hungry for more wins,” said Brassard, whose winner was his first goal of the 2014 playoffs. “I think it’s going to be good for our confidence, just to show us that we can beat those guys.”
For as much as Brassard’s line has been critical to the team’s well-rounded scoring attack, the second defensive pairing of Marc Staal and Anton Stralman is also emerging as an unsung element key to the Rangers' success.
Though top-pair blueliners Ryan McDonagh and Girardi usually shoulder the yeoman’s work against opponents’ top lines, Staal and Stralman were vital in helping containing the likes of both the Crosby and the Malkin lines as well.
For his stout performance in 26:03 of ice time Friday night, Staal was awarded with the team’s MVP trophy hat.
“Just the way he keeps the game so simple,” Pouliot mused. “It’s something we talk about all the time. Marc will have that big block when we need a block or make that pass. He’s always going to be in position to help us. He’s got the longest stick on the team. It’s a pain to the opponent and he does a great job with that. I had to go with Marc because sometimes you don’t recognize that kind of play but us, us we do.”
Staal's and Stralman’s game has been so strong that it has enabled Vigneault to deploy his defensive pairings with confidence that the top four can compete against anything their opponents can throw at them.
“We’ve got two pretty good duos that we’re not afraid to match up against any line,” Vigneault said. “So it makes it easier on the road to get the match-ups you’re looking for.”
That bodes well for the Rangers, as does the fact that some of their top performers still have yet to reach optimal levels during the playoffs. Rick Nash has not scored yet. His entire line is capable of providing more Even goaltender Henrik Lundqvist hasn’t stolen a game.
But Lundqvist finished the night with 34 saves and made some superb stops to preserve the tie en route to recording his 35th playoff victory.
It doesn't matter who gets the credit. As long as the Rangers are winning, that's good enough.